When the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Tradewas set up in 1783 it had an exclusively male organization. Some of the leaders of the anti-slavery movement such as William Wilberforce were totally opposed to women being involved in the campaign. One of Wilberforce's concerns was that women wanted to go further than the abolition of the slave trade. Early women activists such as Anne Knight and Elizabeth Heyrick were in favour of the immediate abolition of slavery, whereas Wilberforce believed that the movement should concentrate on bringing an end to the slave trade.
Although women were excluded from the leadership of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, records show that about ten per cent of the financial supporters of the organisation were women. In some areas, such as Manchester, women made up over a quarter of all subscribers.
After the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, new organisations were formed to campaign against slavery. The most important of these was the Anti-Slavery Society founded in 1823. Members included Thomas Clarkson, Henry Brougham, William Wilberforce and Thomas Fowell Buxton.
Although women were allowed to be members they were virtually excluded from its leadership.
On 8th April, 1825, a meeting took place at the home of Lucy Townsend in Birmingham to discuss the issue of the role of women in the anti-slavery movement. Townsend, Elizabeth Heyrick, Mary Lloyd, Sarah Wedgwood, Sophia Sturge and the other women at the meeting decided to form the Birmingham Ladies Society for the Relief of Negro Slaves (later the group changed its name to the Female Society for Birmingham).
The formation of other independent women's groups soon followed. This included groups in Nottingham (Ann Taylor Gilbert), Sheffield (Mary Ann Rawson, Mary Roberts), Leicester (Elizabeth Heyrick, Susanna Watts), Glasgow (Jane Smeal), Norwich (Amelia Alderson Opie, Anna Gurney), London (Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck, Mary Foster), Darlington (Elizabeth Pease) and Chelmsford (Anne Knight). By 1831 there were seventy-three of these women's organisations campaigning against slavery.
Wilberforce's fear that women would advocate a more radical strategy proved to be correct. In 1824 Elizabeth Heyrick published her pamphlet Immediate not Gradual Abolition. In her pamphlet Heyrick argued passionately in favour of the immediate emancipation of the slaves in the British colonies. This differed from the official policy of the Anti-Slavery Society that believed in gradual abolition. The leadership of the organisation attempted to suppress information about the existence of this pamphlet and William Wilberforce gave out instructions for leaders of the movement not to speak at women's anti-slavery societies.
The Female Society for Birmingham had established a network of women's anti-slavery groups and Heyrick's pamphlet was distributed and discussed at meetings all over the country. In 1827 the Sheffield Female Society, became the first anti-slavery society in Britain to call for the immediate emancipation of slaves. Other women's groups quickly followed but attempts to persuade the leadership of the Anti-Slavery Society initially failed.
In 1830, the Female Society for Birmingham submitted a resolution to the National Conference of the Anti-Slavery Society calling for the organisation to campaign for an immediate end to slavery in the British colonies. In an attempt to persuade the male leadership to change its mind on this issue, the society threatened to withdraw its funding of the organisation. The Female Society for Birmingham was one of the largest local society donors to central funds, and also had great influence over the network of ladies associations which supplied over a fifth of all donations.
At the conference in May 1830, the Anti-Slavery Society agreed to drop the words "gradual abolition" from its title. It also agreed to support Sarah Wedgwood's plan for a new campaign to bring about immediate abolition. The following year the Anti-Slavery Society presented a petition to Parliament calling for the "immediate freeing of newborn children of slaves".
The women's anti-slavery societies were disbanded after the Abolition of Slavery Act was passed in 1833. However, several of the women that had obtained experience in these societies now turned their attention to other issues including factory reform, the end of the Corn Laws and the campaign for parliamentary reform. For example, Anne Knight, Elizabeth Pease and Jane Smeal were all active in Moral Force Chartism movement.
In 1840 attempts were made to stop women delegates from taking part in the World Anti-Slavery Convention held in London in 1840. This inspired Anne Knight to start a campaign advocating equal rights for women. This included having gummed labels printed with feminist quotations that she attached to the outside of her letters. In 1847 she published what is believed to be the first ever leaflet on women's suffrage.
Two American delegates Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, like the British women at the World Anti-Slavery Convention, were refused permission to speak at the meeting. Stanton later recalled: "We resolved to hold a convention as soon as we returned home, and form a society to advocate the rights of women." However, it was not until 1848 that Stanton and Mott organised the Women's Rights Convention at Seneca Falls. Stanton's resolution that it was "the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves the sacred right to the elective franchise" was passed and became the focus of the group's campaign over the next few years.